Challenging High Stakes Standardized Testing in Alberta

I’ve often felt that the only thing I’ve ever been good at is teaching. The classroom has always been a place where I feel the most confident and the best version of myself. Working with young people has pushed me to be constantly reflecting on my practice and on myself to be the best I can. With over ten years of experience teaching, I’ve learned to fall in love with the process of teaching. The journey that I’ve been on has been so rewarding because it’s been filled with major challenges, setbacks, and progress towards reaching my goal of being an expert teacher. There is nothing more rewarding to me than to have the opportunity to use my creativity to innovate in the classroom to find new ways to get young people curious and excited about learning. This job brings with it so much responsibility and privilege to contribute in our small ways to make the world a better place.

However, one of the challenges that has always constrained what I do in the classroom has been the imposing nature of Alberta’s diploma exams for Grade 12 students. As I reflect back on the last ten years teaching in Alberta, I think of the ways that standardization has crept up into our pedagogy and practice. Across the provinces, departments and districts are requiring more standardized processes to be adhered to by teachers in order to ensure quality standardized exam results. Though we don’t like to say it, this is the danger of structuring education in a way that rewards teaching to the test.

Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

As teachers who care about our students, we want them to achieve the grades they need/want, but the process of preparing them for high stakes standardized tests narrows our pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment. What we lose in this process is the development of properly teaching critical thinking and lighting the fire of curiosity and questioning within students.

Standardized assessments have a conditioning impact on teachers and students. We come to believe that these forms of assessment are the most worthy, while other forms of assessment are less than. In short, for over 35 years, standardized testing in Alberta in the form of the Diploma Exams have been destroying the capacity of teachers to be trusted as professionals capable of engaging within a framework of educational practice that could benefit all students. Furthermore, this type of high stakes testing is harmful because it tells students that their learning (and maybe even their intelligence) is tied to a number from one large-scale, high stakes test.

How Did We Get here?

Alberta’s history with standardized testing is a long one starting in 1892 as a way to compare students in Alberta to students in other provinces. Essentially, exams worth 100% of a students mark were in place in Alberta until 1972 and it should be noted that these standardized tests, or departmentals as they were called then, are much like any standardized test of the time being steeped within a euro-centric framework of assessment. The ideological framework of standardized testing was brought forward in the United States in an attempt to devise a test that would demonstrate the superiority of white people. The SAT’s were the first widely spread use of standardized testing in North America that were created with white supremacist assumptions. Although these tests evolved over time, it is worth understanding the racist framework from which they were devised.

Throughout the 1960’s the departmentals in Alberta came under greater scrutiny from academics and education leaders until they were eventually removed in 1972 under the new Progressive Conservative Government led by Peter Lougheed. Over a few years, though, there became louder and louder public demand to bring back the exams to demonstrate “accountability in education”. An expert panel was put together by the government to make a recommendation of whether large-scale standardized testing should be a policy of Alberta Education. The committee, which was made up of assessment experts, academics, and other leaders in the field of education recommended that Alberta not institute a standardized testing policy in Alberta. Despite this recommendation, Alberta would institute a standardized testing program in 1985 to cater to the demands of the public. This policy would be the beginning of the Diploma Exams and eventually the PATs, which would be ramped up under the market-driven ideology of the Kelin government.

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The Diploma Exam is a high-stakes standardized exam. Any time a students’ grade is attached to their performance on a large-scale standardized assessment it is categorized as high stakes. And because of these high stakes, there are many impacts that this testing policy has on Alberta classrooms. Oftentimes, the diploma exam narrows the curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment methods that teachers use within the classroom as they can feel a pressure to ensure that their students perform well on the tests. While every teacher wants their students to succeed, we must be aware of the impact that increasing standardization has on our practice and how that can limit, frustrate, and cause educational harm to students and teachers.

Most importantly, we have to understand that high stakes standardized testing like the diploma exam perpetuate systemic inequities within our system. These tests, despite the best efforts of test makers, contain bias and we routinely see students in the margins of our system performing lower on these exams than their peers. Essentially, students with more access to resources, support, and privilege perform at higher rates while those who are marginalized by systemic inequities are impacted by the bias and standards that are inherent in the test. This creates a further barrier to achieving equity within our system and requires students to jump through a large and unnecessary hoop in achieving their high school diploma.

Most importantly for me is that I’m tired of having a standardized exam loom over myself and students. We all know it’s coming and we all know that — despite what we tell ourselves — teachers in Alberta teach to this test. We know that this is a practice not supported by any research and can do great harm to our students’ curiosity and love of learning. We have to think of the impact of how a test steeped in Euro-centric beliefs of assessment can impact Black, Indigenous, and all racialized students within our schools. How are we honouring different ways of knowing and being together as learners under the backdrop of an inferior exam that dictates the futures of so many?

If we continue this trajectory we will continue to see the widening of the opportunity gaps within our system along with the degradation of good teaching and assessment practices. The COVID-19 Pandemic has forced us to consider how we approach education in new ways and now is as good a time as any to rethink our use of high-stakes standardized testing in Alberta.

Where Do We Go From Here?

As I write this, the UCP government has recently made the diploma exams optional for the first quarter of learning in Alberta because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While this is a step in the right direction, let’s not forget that increased standardized testing is a main ideological point of view of this government. Even in a crisis, they are slow to evaluate this policy, and at this point, the diploma exam and PATs are going ahead throughout the rest of the year. We have to consider the ways in which requiring students to write a standardized exam during a pandemic will be beneficial. What will we actually be measuring and what will the results tell us?

Too often, the results of these tests are not used to help teachers make decisions about their classroom practice or inform students of how they can improve their learning. On top of this, we are living through a health crisis in the form of a pandemic, an economic crisis, a crisis of ongoing racial injustice, and the climate crisis. Our lives and capabilities are limited, but rather than using this school year as a way to learn about how we take care of each other during a crisis, we have marched forward with a business as usual approach.

This is not what students or teachers need at this moment. Students have had to miss considerable time, with many having to self-isolate due to outbreaks of COVID-19 at their schools. They are learning on an accelerated quarter schedule all while missing the previous four months of school due to the lockdown and emergency remote teaching. We know that students’ mental health is suffering under these conditions and requiring them to write a standardized exam at this time is just cruel.

Photo by Brad Neathery on Unsplash

We need a pedagogy of radical love to learn how we take care of ourselves, our families, and larger communities during the most difficult time our society has experienced in a very long time.

That is why, as part of my role as an organizer with the RAD Educators Network we are advocating for all diploma exams and PAT’s to be canceled for the remainder of this pandemic school year. We will continue our efforts to highlight the barriers, impacts, and inequities of standardized testing as we also seek the long term elimination of high stakes standardized testing in Alberta. We can dream of better assessment policies to ensure our system is running well that doesn’t punish students in the margins of our system.

If you’d like to make your voice heard, I’d love for you to fill out this survey to share your perspective with us, write a letter to your MLA, or have real conversations with students, teachers, families and the larger community about the impact that high stakes standardized testing has on our education system.

We can dream of a more just and equitable education system and part of this must be abolishing large-scale high-stakes standardized tests like the Diploma exams.

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